Trade thriving at border town between Sudan and its conflict-affected neighbour as security improves
As the United Nations plane heads towards the town of Renk, the pilot informs all those on board that he needs to do a quick flyover of the airstrip to ensure it is in good enough shape to accommodate a landing.
He expertly steers the aircraft down towards the ground so that he can do a low sweep along the runway checking for any potholes or subsidence.
Once the check is complete and he is satisfied it is safe, he veers back up into the skies doing a sharp turn to circle the area before lining up the runway again and touching down safely.
On board, is the Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the UN Mission in South Sudan, David Shearer. It is his first visit to the town in the far north of the country, close to the border with Sudan.
First stop is the local market where business is booming. There are plenty of goods for sale despite the trade corridor currently being closed between the two countries, meaning many products are likely to have been smuggled into South Sudan. The relative prosperity is attracting many people who fled during the five-year civil war to return from refugee camps just across the border.
People are pleased and curious to see the Head of UNMISS and his team touring through the market, buying peanuts and chili peppers from stallholders. They tell him that returnees are coming through the area every day and either settling back into their homes in the northern Upper Nile or travelling through to communities further south. They expect more to come when the border is officially reopened and when the height of the dry season hits in January.
“From what I’m hearing it’s been calm, very stable,” says David Shearer. “The population here is multi-ethnic and they’re living very much at peace. In many ways, it is a town that could be a model for the rest of South Sudan.”
Power is also flowing to the area from Sudan, the roads are well-sealed, and the town is much more built up than other parts of the country which have been devastated by the violent conflict that erupted five years ago.
However, local authorities say they desperately need investment in new infrastructure, including systems capable of taking water and power from the center of town to outlying areas. Healthcare and educational facilities are also limited.
“We need peace, education and hygiene services in Renk,” says the Northern Upper Nile Deputy Governor, Awer Dau Agany, after a meeting with the team from UNMISS and humanitarian partners.
He acknowledged that violence in the area had driven humanitarian workers away, including an incident in nearby Maban where hundreds of demonstrators invaded humanitarian compounds, torching vehicles and tukuls, beating workers and destroying offices and homes.
“The Government is taking action against the people that destroyed the place,” he says. “As a Government we will be the right hand of UNMISS to support it. We need all the humanitarians to support the people here to encourage development in Renk and the other South Sudan states.”
UNMISS has a base in Renk staffed by peacekeepers from India. They carry out patrols to provide a protective presence for the host community as well as returning refugees and meet regularly with local authorities and community leaders in an effort to build durable peace.
“If the peace process can work, and if it’s possible to be able to meet with the opposition groups here and create peace, then everything will flow from that,” says David Shearer.
Sustainable peace will also encourage further prosperity for a community that is tired of war and wants the chance to rebuild their country, so they have a future to look forward to.